Thursday, May 31, 2007

Cello lesson 5/31 - Not Doing

The best weeks are the ones where I can't tell the difference between a cello lesson and an Alexander Technique lesson. Which I think means that the over-riding theme of my life as a cello player is that first I need to get out of my own way.

Today's lesson material:
Scale: d harmonic minor, 4 octaves, linked half-notes with 4 quarter notes on bow changes
Bach Arioso - 1st 2 measures
Bach Prelude to 2nd Suite - 1st 2 measures

Left hand things:
* bring the elbow low enough that the finger is flat without needing to either collapse at the DIP or round the fingers to keep on the tips
* vibrato mitten - feel like my finger tips form one unit, all supporting the vibrating finger
* 4th finger - rolling a bit to the outer side helps maintain the curved shape (I need more callous there!)
* imagine a weight taped around my elbow pulling the arm down and back
* shifting - the ONLY thing that needs to happen is that the forearm falls under the influence of gravity. The vibrato doesn't stop. There is no wind-up or extraneous arm motion required (a bad habit left over from T1-)
* extension - thumb and second finger fall with the arm while 1st finger remains behind

Exercise: swing left hand down to side, then up to plop onto the fingerboard. Without adjusting finger position, play vibrato on designated finger, wherever it happens to land.

Right hand things:
* watch the tendency to creep forward, excessive pronation. Keep eye of frog between 3 and 4
* the arm doesn't need the "help" of the shoulders. Watch tendency to raise the shoulders, which may be no more than excess stabilizing tension
* on up bow, feel the left elbow weight causing the bow to move sideways. This works better if the elbow remains low
* think gooey fondue, honey, peanut butter

Position note: when I move the cello straight forward (away from me), the C peg should hit me in the back of my head. If it passes without touching me my cello is slanted too far to the left.

Music is played one moment at a time. I was going to say one note, but didn't want to quibble about chords and double stops. Theoretically, if I play one note beautifully, then the next note, linking note to note, I will be able to play the whole piece beautifully.

Application: I think I need to designate 10-15 minutes of my practice time as "non-doing" time, where the only focus is going from one beautiful, relaxed note to another, inhibiting my habitual (unnecessary) preparation for playing the next note (that is the Alexandrian part). I can do that with my scale, or a couple of measures of Arioso or the Prelude. That needs to be my ONLY focus during that time, probably the hardest part of the whole exercise. Zen and the Art of Cello Playing.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Snap is a very interesting little fellow. He reminds me of Fred Astaire, with too big eyes in a too little face, a little too thin but very appealing, a disposition both sweet and impish. By the time he left he was doing belly flops all over the house. He loved to lounge on the carpet, toes curled, spots showing, looking at you a bit cross-eyed. Of course, my associative memory is a bit skewed as I've been having my own private Fred and Ginger watch-a-thon thanks to a loan from D-. Imagining dancing while one leg is propped up on ice is excellent therapy.

Every once in awhile a kitten snags Sweetie for a private nursing session. This is Snap showing his postprandial pleasure.

It's Tummy Tuesday. To see more of the (feline) sunny-side-up variety, visit LisaViolet.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sunday Snoozes

It's an absolutely glorious day. Blue sky, shining sun, low humidity, comfortable temperature. At least it looks that way from inside. Come to think of it, I haven't been outside since I returned from surgery on Tuesday. Can that really be? I'm pretty sure. I've spent the week trying to titrate the pain meds somewhere between relief and sleeping. I don't get it exactly right very often. Recovery has been more painful than I expected.

Though I spent most of today napping, this photo is from last Sunday. Five of the six Sugar Babies are crammed together on one level of the Orbitor for a lovely Sunday afternoon snooze. Who's missing? Taffy, of course.

Here she is. A few moments before I was on the other side of that red polartec throw. She was napping with me.

Chip, Taffy, Honey and Snap went back to the shelter on Monday, before my surgery. Candy was still only 24 oz., so I kept her, Sweetie for nourishment, and Sugar for company in case Mom wanted to finish weening. The stress level in my house went down instantaneously. Six big kittens plus Mom was a lot. We have had a pretty peaceful week, and probably have one more to go until Candy is finally big enough.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Why Rhythms?

PFS asked why I was practicing in rhythms in the first place. I started to respond in a comment, but it got quite long so I've moved the explanation here. I can see I was a bit sparing with the point of the thing in my lesson notes.

Rhythms are a good technique to use when you want to bring a passage up to speed. The other common technique is to play with a metronome, starting slowly, then gradually increasing the tempo.

What the rhythms do is increase the speed of movement between notes, while allowing time on the longer notes to recover your balance (if needed) and prepare mentally for the next short block of fast notes. By changing the rhythm, you change which fast notes are coming, and change the challenges, like shifts and string crossings - easy when slow, more complicated at tempo, but with more time to prepare.

The rhythm exercise where you add quarter notes also allows you time to hear the intonation of that note better, while you are also preparing for the largest number of notes (4) at the fastest speed.

The accent exercise improves your control of the notes at a slower tempo. Believe me, it takes control and really knowing what's coming to get the accents right, even under tempo. I found that a lot harder than the rhythms.

The bottom line is that after practicing the passage with rhythms you can play it better and faster, and better in tune. You may have noticed that between the first clip and the last my intonation improved quite a bit. I also couldn't play it at anywhere near my target tempo initially. It seems like work, but it's very efficient when adequately applied. That was my shortfall before. By changing the task every 5 or 7 or 10 repetitions it keeps your mind engaged by frequently changing the challenge.

And ola etc, I have memorized those 12 measure over 4 practice sessions. By concentrating on one short section each time, I have it memorized by the end. Then I spend 10 minutes adding it to what I've already learned, which provides the needed repetition to keep it secure. T- has a saying, which one day I will learn to spell. It's in Russian, and the translation is something like "Repetition is the mother of all learning." Remember my post about the Yo Yo Diet? A very small chunk and many repetitions is working for me.

Hope that helps.

Demonstration of Rhythms

As I was loading my cello into the car this morning to go to church, a bird was playing in my head. Sounded like a bird, anyway. No, it was a violin. The tune was familiar, but I couldn't quite place it, until I reached the tutti. Ah, Vivaldi. Spring, 1st movement. I am still in awe of people that can identify a tune after hearing 2 or 3 notes, or the opening chord. Me, I'm delighted when I can figure it out by the tutti.

It didn't take as long as I expected to string these practice video clips into a movie. Even though I had to fix a video card conflict with Movie Maker first. But since yesterday's post was long enough, I'm giving the movie it's own post today.

It would be nice to have an extension so that I didn't have to get up to start the camera each clip. I found that when I sat down I felt rushed to start, and often had the cello placed suboptimally. Silly, when I had to trim the beginning, anyway. Another little lesson to file away.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Cello lesson 5/10 - Rhythms

Yes, that's 5/10, not 5/17. I canceled my lesson this week, something I rarely do, because I was still getting over being sick, plus I had practiced a total of maybe an hour the preceding week, again because of said illness. It didn't seem sensible to waste both of our times.

However, I haven't posted anything about the preceeding lesson. The most important item we discussed was a practical approach to working up music that consists of strings of notes using rhythms. I won't call it passage work, since the music under discussion is Bach, the Courante from the 2nd Suite, and heaven forbid I think of that as passage work.

The reason we had to discuss a practical approach is that, though I have tremendous theoretical knowledge about how to do this, for some reason I have been unable to apply it in practice. So we went over 10 variations, and I have explicit instructions to work one section, or even 1 measure, at a time. Ten rhythms, sequentially, 5-10 reps of each rhythm. Since my lesson I've worked on 2 measures and two sections this way.

Today during breaks in my practice I was thinking about this post, and it occurred to me that I should record the last of my reps in each rhythm and post them. It will make a lot more sense, to you now and to me later, to see/hear them than to read the following cursory description. It's a good time to do it, too. My readership falls off significantly on weekends. Plus, I'm going to post the description now and the video a little later, because it will take some time to compile the clips (Oh! A movie!) and I'll bet lots of folks won't remember to come back to look <g>.

All rhythms describe a block of 4 sixteenth notes. The 10 rhythms:
1. long - short - long - short
2. short - long - short - long
3. add quarter note to 1
4. add quarter note to 2
5. add quarter note to 3
6. add quarter note to 4
7. accent 1
8. accent 2
9. accent 3
10. accent 4

I keep the metronome set at my target quarter note value (84 for now), but for 1-2 and 7-10 I play at half that rate. The bowings are not altered, which takes some planning for bow distribution, especially in variations 3-6. T- was very clear that after playing the rhythms I should play the bit I have been working on in tempo, up to tempo. Then I slow down a bit, check my memory, and add it to what I have done so far. I recorded both the up-to-tempo (still a little too fast) and the "so far", 3/4 of the A section.

Should be more video than anyone would want to watch.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Monkeys and lunges

Boy, are you going to be surprised when you read this post. Monkeys and lunges? What's up with that?

Today I had my last Alexander Technique lesson before surgery. (Whoa! I just got a message that New Blogger saves my draft automatically. Progress!) What was I saying? Oh, yes. At my AT lesson I asked for a refresher on stair climbing, thinking ahead to an unknown number of upcoming weeks on crutches. After table time, where I had some unexpected tension in my lower neck and posterior left upper arm I needed to rid myself of, we did our first lesson on lunges. Up to this point we have concentrated on chair-sitting (monkeys) and arm motions (arm-on-back-of-chair type things).

So now I've used monkey in an unexpected way in a sentence. Alexander referred to the monkey as the position of mechanical advantage, and it's commonly called a monkey because, well, you look a bit like one when you squat that way. I can assure you that it works very well. This is the classic photo of F.M. working with a young girl, and I found it in a handout on a nifty NZ web site, if you would like to read about it.

But today we worked on lunges, not monkeys. A lunge is what you think it is, and in it's simplest form it's the way you unweight one leg so that you can move it forward to walk, run, climb stairs, or do just about anything in which you move your feet. The coolest thing about AT is that just about every activity is encompassed in the limited number of things you work on: lying down, monkeys, lunges, and hands-on-chairs. It's a bit like playing the cello - infinitely simple and infinitely complex.

These are my brief notes, so I will have something to refer to next week:
* Beginning lunge, one hand on chair. (Alternate hands.) Unweight one leg by shifting balance from over heels toward balls of feet. Bend at ankles. Bend moving knee by releasing from behind.
* Think: spine goes up, knees go forward. The bend occurs as release. Should not be leading with hips.
* Stairs work exactly the same way. Start from stance one foot up on next step. Move weight forward, bending at lower ankle. Use momentum as you release bent knee from behind, thinking of support under bent leg, and straighten leg.
* Remember: spine up, knees forward.
It made climbing steps feel incredibly easy, rather like I'd lost about 20 lbs.

When I came home I practiced with my crutches. I shortened them one peg to better accommodate using myself this way. Again for my own benefit, these are cliff notes about how to use the crutches, for when I am confused next week. B is bad (left, for me) and G is good (right). C stands for crutch(es):
* Walking, two crutches: C + B, G. Think step, together. Can also be done C, B, G.
* Walking, one crutch: C + B, G. Also step, together.
* Stairs, down: C + B, G. Two feet on same step, bad always goes down first.
* Stairs, up: G, C + B. Two feet on same step, good always goes up first.
* Stairs with rail, carry crutches: rail on G side, same order as above.

I'll be on crutches until I can walk "normally," meaning without a limp. Objectively that means swelling resolved, no pain, and flexion of about 70 degrees. I'm pretty sure I'll be able to carry a cello over my shoulder once I can walk using only one crutch. Well, I can plan...

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Thinking up titles can be such a pain. I can't tell you how many e-mail messages I write where I just use the day of the week as the subject. And it does fit the theme that is developing this week.

This morning I had my pre-op physical therapy appointment. I learned the correct way to walk with crutches, and what I should be doing for the first week post-op, until I start rehab in earnest. My priorities are 1) to keep the swelling down with ice and compression, 2) to be able to extend at the knee completely and 3) to keep my quadriceps muscle firing so it doesn't atrophy. Plus frequent calf muscle contractions to reduce the risk of deep venous thrombosis. Other than my irrational fear of spinal anesthesia and nerve blocks, I'm ready for next Tuesday.

I was looking through my photo catalog this morning, and realized that I shot a short video of John playing with Candy at the same time that I took the photo I used for Tummy Tuesday yesterday. Uncle John is such a good babysitter.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Tummy Tuesday

What with being quite ill and using all my energy today to play our final concert (we were already down to three cellos), I almost forgot what day it is. It's nice to have a theme day.

Here's Candy helping Uncle John show off his tummy. Isn't that black tip on her tail cute?

It's Tummy Tuesday. To see more of the (feline) sunny-side-up variety, visit LisaViolet.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Blue Monday

Your Blog Should Be Blue

Your blog is a peaceful, calming force in the blogosphere.
You tend to avoid conflict - you're more likely to share than rant.
From your social causes to cute pet photos, your life is a (mostly) open book.

Dang. I thought I was more fun than that. And I tried blue, but didn't like it.

However, this 'idgit that I stumbled across en route to other things fits well with my post for today. The events I am about to describe started on a Monday, but it was the one two weeks ago. Out of deference for PFS's (who has the pinkest blog I've ever seen) GI woes that week I delayed describing my own issues with gastrointestinal dysfunction until now. And too, I was pretty busy dealing with the fallout (so to speak) at the time.

This was the sight that met my eyes (and nose) when I opened the office door to feed the Sugar Babies that Monday morning:

Yes, those little brown, yellow, and white puddles are exactly what you think they are. Every 6-8 inches around the circumference of the room. I know exactly what happened.

D-day. It's 2 am, all watches synchronized.


"Sugar baby squad all present and accounted for, sir!"

Dress right - DRESS!

Ready - FRONT!

By the numbers - POOP!

There's no other way to account for the absolute regularity of the interval.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The thing about kittens that they live completely in the moment.
If you allow yourself to join them there, you will inevitably find yourself in a peaceful, happy place.

What brings this to mind? I'm sitting beside the office desk, with my feet propped up on it while DH does some e-mail chores. Little Candy has deserted her siblings in favor of playing on my lap, using my legs as a bridge to the desk. She is completely involved in her play, chasing one thing, then another that distracts her. DH can't continue the e-mail. It's too much fun to watch her play.

BTW, that's Chip on the left. He reached his goal weight of 2 lbs on Thursday. Candy is on the right. She is up to 20 oz. today. I suppose some would think her homely, but I think she is just the cutest thing, shadowing me wherever I go. She and Chip are best buddies.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Only Yesterday

It's fascinating to watch each group of kittens mature, meeting the same milestones, but each set with a unique family personality. The morning routine is much the same: wake up, play, eat, play. As they get older, play, play, play. Then there comes a time later each morning when energy levels flag and all are overcome by sleep.

This was nap time yesterday morning. As usual, the Sugar Babies are stretched out in a companionable group. They filled the space that originally hosted a little pile of kittens in one corner.

This is today. I know they are growing up when they start doing things independently.

Sweetie, sleeping on the dining room floor.

Taffy and Sugar snuggling in another corner of the dining room.

Snap and Chip, sprawled on the couch. How guy-like.

Honey snoozing under the coffee table.

Tiny Candy, curled up under the chair.

They'll be big soon.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I'm full

Wanna play?

That's Chip in the middle. It's worth it to click the photo open to check the priceless expression on his face. Not to mention the spots on his not-so-little tummy.

It's Tummy Tuesday. To see more of the (feline) sunny-side-up variety, visit LisaViolet.

Monday, May 07, 2007

What's the difference...

between an amateur and a professional?

That was a recurrent theme during T-'s last studio class.

An amateur practices until he gets it right.
A professional practices until she can't get it wrong.

It occurs to me that playing in an amateur orchestra fosters an amateur mindset towards preparing music.

A major benefit of playing in an orchestra is that the music stretches you, and can be an impetus for adding technical principal, fast. But the risk to this is that the requirements are often beyond what your "technique bank" can afford. Sometimes you can be seriously overdrawn. So you prepare as best you can, figure out the best way to "fake" it, actively engage your imagination to hear the music the way you want it to sound, even though it doesn't. Practice until you get it "right enough," then move on to the next challenge.

Some of my current angst over how I am playing is a side effect of having my ears opened to the sound I am actually producing. It's painful in my lessons, but so worthwhile. At least, I think it is. Might it be better to remain ignorant, enjoying my imaginary music? Sometimes, while I am practicing the orchestra music that is still beyond me, I wonder.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Jelly bean

DH's birthday is about a month before Easter, but one of his sisters gave him an Easter basket for his birthday present. Unassembled, with the bags of candy waiting to be added to an Easter egg or two and artfully arranged. The basket is still sitting on the kitchen counter, and we are opening a bag of candy at a time, and slowly eating our way through them. I'm sure that wasn't the plan, but what can you do? He eats his meals that way, too, sequentially. Anyway, I'm enjoying jelly beans this week.

You Are a Peach Jelly Bean

You have a distinct style that you don't really have to work for. You're genuinely quirky, and people love your understated charm.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Cello lesson 5/3: Yo Yo Diet

I have been focused on learning some new bowing motor skills, and consequently am feeling less well prepared for lessons. That may also be due to a decreasing practice phenomenon, between frustration that nothing feels right at the moment, and the need to spend some of my time learning trio and orchestra repertoire. And I wasted a lot of time this week reviewing old repertoire and playing things I can already read. I think I needed a confidence boost.

In any case, we again spent three quarters of the lesson working on my bow hold and mechanics. The scale was a combination of F minor and major, and my exit assignment is to limit my scale practice this week to slow linked half notes with four short notes at the extremes before the bow change, with no metronome. Focus on using the whole arm to move the bow, extra push from 3 and 4 at the tip, the way the thumb bends with the bow changes.

We moved on to Bach, a new movement today. T- asked for the Courante. Fortunately, I did read through that several times this week. Unfortunately, I'm still playing with a different fingering and bowing each time, not sure how I want to do this. So I basically massacred it, wrong notes, inconsistent bowings, irregular tempo, lots of pauses while I figured out what to do next. Ugh.

One of the most difficult things for me at my present level of development is playing music I can't play yet. I know that sounds like a big "Duh!," but what I mean is music I can't read easily. At my advancing age, I have yet to figure out a reliable way of learning something I don't get on the first reading. After yesterday's lesson I think what I need is the Yo Yo diet.

As the story goes, Yo Yo Ma learned his first Bach at the age of 4, with his father teaching him one measure per day. That's pretty much the way my lesson went. After that gruesome read-through, we went back to the beginning and worked on the first measure, plus the chord at the beginning of the second. My assignment is to go forth and do likewise in the practice room. The process will be something like this:

For each measure + first note of next measure
* Decide on the fingerings and bowings
* Play through No Tempo with all notes equivalent until the fingerings work
* Isolate problem shifts, chords, fingerings and practice separately if needed, then reincorporate
* Play through at very slow tempo with metronome with fingerings + bowings
* Isolate problem bowings, bow distribution, and string crossings if needed
* Slowly increase tempo to a moderate rate
* If it's not coming easily, invent different ways to play the measure (double stops, rhythms, etc.) to get the necessary repetitions. No beating head against wall!
Next measure

At some point, I'll need to apply the process to phrases, and then sections. The hardest part, as always, is to fight the urge to pretend I can play it and mangle it in chunks I don't know yet. The other variable I haven't figured out is what review to do on a day-to-day basis, and how quickly to progress.

As painful as this was in my lesson (I felt so inadequate), I left feeling optimistic. I'm sure I can learn one measure at a time. Now I just need to lose the expectation that I will be able to play this movement by next week. It's got to take the time it takes.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Sharea Maria

We have a guest tummy today for Tummy Tuesday.

This is Sharea Maria, D-'s newest foster kitten. D- brought her home from a weekend trip to assist with volunteer efforts at an under-resourced animal rescue organization Up North. Seems she was a tiny girl in a tiny cage all by herself, after her mother and the rest of her siblings succumbed to an unknown illness. Well, if you know D-, then you already know the end of that story.

Sharae Maria was packed into the car, along with an injured bald eagle headed to the metro Raptor Center. Sharea had evidently had enough of cages, because she complained vociferously about being in one, in a moving vehicle yet. Fortunately, there was another driver, so Sharea got car privileges under D-'s (and the eagle's) watchful eye. As D- says, "the kitten was unconcerned," and obviously enjoyed the rest of the ride home.

Sharea Maria, named after two little girls that D- met on the trip, has also proved fearless in the face of D-'s resident 14-18 lb tuxedo cats, and has joined the Sausage Kittens in waiting to grow up a little more and find a good home. The only thing she doesn't like is being left alone.

It's Tummy Tuesday. To see more of the (feline) sunny-side-up variety, visit LisaViolet.